We were thrilled to have the chance to interview author/critic/amateur musician/professor David Gates, whose debut novel Jernigan was a Pulitzer finalist, and whose short story collection Wonders of the Invisible World was also one of our favorites.
booknosh: You’ve been a writer, an editor, a musician, a teacher and a critic — which of those roles is the most natural? the hardest work? or does it all go hand in hand?
DG: Probably editing comes the most naturally to me. I usually seem to know what to do with a piece of text, especially one that’s not my own–though of course I can be wrong. I haven’t done a lot of criticism lately, but teaching draws on what I know from both being a critic and a editor. Writing is the hardest work, and it gets harder as I learn more and set the bar higher for myself; it’s also what I probably do best. Music might be the most pure fun, but I’m a limited, not-professional-quality musician; I’m most successful when I play and sing within those limits.
booknosh: Can you tell us a little about the chronology of it all?
DG: Leaving my music life out of it–which seems to me like a separate track–I wrote a little in high school, became a Ph.D. student in literature, dropped that after one draft of a dissertation (on Samuel Beckett’s late work), and eventually found an entry-level job at Newsweek, answering readers’ letters. This was in 1979; a couple of months after that I began to write fiction seriously. It was a few years later, while my beginning fiction was still unpublished (and thank God) that I began writing book reviews for Newsweek.
booknosh: There are all sorts of clichés about “those who can’t do, teach” or those who can’t write… critique, yet you seem to be going about it in the opposite direction: was there something about being a critic that made you want to be writer?
DG: So, no, it wasn’t being a critic that made me want to write fiction, or vice versa, though I’m sure the two things fed each other. I think both came from an early love of reading. And, of course, of self-display.
booknosh: What are your favorite classics? Your favorite modern novels?
DG: I’m always re-reading Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Dickens; I don’t know if Samuel Beckett now a classic or still modern, but those are my big four. Among the once-modern writers, I return again and again to the stories of Hemingway, John Cheever and Raymond Carver. My favorite novels by the still-living include Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, Philip Roth’s Everyman, Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. And by the ought-to-be-still-living, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
booknosh: How actively do you read new novels, and with so much out there, how do you decide what to pick up? Do you read all the Pulitzers? Or do you take a chance on a newbie every now and then?
DG: I seldom read new novels now; I spent so many years keeping up with them and evaluating them for a living that it mostly feels like work rather than pleasure. I’ve probably passed the point at which I’m going to read something that would radically alter my own work–my tastes are pretty much set, for better or worse–and it’s more important to me to give that energy to my own writing and to my students’ manuscripts. I still read a lot, but much of it is actually re-reading. I can’t understand why anyone would listen to a favorite song a thousand times and not read a great work of literature more than once. The rest is nonfiction, or fiction I haven’t yet read by long-gone writers whose work I already know I like–Edith Wharton, for example.
booknosh: Are there some authors and/or books that you wish more people read? That you could recommend to us?
DG: Hmm. How many more people? I don’t know that I’d wish mass popularity on any writer, any more than I’d wish that writer neglect and poverty. But I’m surprised that Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern and A Mother’s Kisses aren’t better known.
booknosh: We’ve read other interviews and seen some of your critiques… but do you have any guilty pleasures in terms of genres and/or less literary fiction? Like a closet full of Harlequin romance novels?
DG: I don’t feel guilty about constantly re-reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, or P.G. Wodehouse, but they are pleasures. So are books about baseball. They don’t always have to be good to engage me, but they stand a better chance when they’re as rich as Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. For a while, I was reading a lot of books about mountaineering expeditions, and I still think Galen Rowell’s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods is a keeper.
booknosh: All time, top 5 favorite movies… just because…
DG: These vary from year to year, even week to week, but I’d probably always put the first two Godfather movies at the top. Then, in no particular order: The Lady Eve, The Awful Truth, Fellini’s Casanova and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Parsifal. At another time I might replace those last two with The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon, or Touch of Evil and North by Northwest, or 42nd Street and Bride of Frankenstein
booknosh: If one of your books could be made into a movie (let’s say Jernigan unless you’d like to suggest something different), how would you cast it?
DG: The predictable answer–and I guess the most accurate too–would be a younger Jack Nicholson as Peter Jernigan. I’m sure that character must owe a little something to Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in The Shining, in addition to whatever other influences.
booknosh: Are you working on anything now? What’s your schedule like? are you a make-time-every-morning writer or a when-it-hits-you writer?
DG: Right now, no, I’m not working on anything. Maybe three weeks ago, I finished a short story I’d been working on steadily for more than three months (it had been kicking around in various forms for more than ten years), after which I gave myself a break, did some school-work, and then went off to teach at the Bennington Writing Seminars. I’ll try to get a new story started when that’s over. Or maybe something will occur to me sooner. I’d probably have produced more at this point in my life if I were a make-time-every-morning writer, and I still haven’t given up on becoming one. In reality, though, it’s catch-as-catch-can, until I either hit on something I believe is working, or until I simply dig in my heels and resolve to keep grinding away on something unpromising until it gets promising. When that happens, I’ll take any available time, and I can go at it for eight to twelve hours in a day, pacing and computer solitaire included. In more normal periods, an hour or so a day a few times a week would be a lot. I can’t tell whether I’m babying myself, or just taking wise precautions against discouragement. At any rate, I don’t feel compelled to be “producing” all the time. I’d be grateful to end up with one story a year that I’m happy with, and lately I’ve been doing a little more than that.